Category Archives: Music & Language

Learn a new language by singing

Hello Dear Reader

Today I am thinking about foreign languages. People who come from monolingual families and who are raised in the UK school system are notorious across the world for being poor at speaking foreign languages.

My Kenyan friend Kim once told me a joke that I have repeated to knowing laughter on many occasions since: ‘ People who speak more than two languages are called multi-lingual, people who speak two language are called bilingual….people who speak one language are called British’

This may be an unfair generalisation but it applies to me, no argument. I learned French for 3 years at school and German for 1 year. I lived in Switzerland for the best part of a year. My fiancé is Spanish.  And yet, I speak only English. For shame.

photo mamaThis week my mother-in-law-to-be has been visiting from Zaragoza, Spain. We have known each other for 7 years and yet we can hardly speak. ‘Frustration’ is hardly the word. We can share the odd joke and passing comment about the weather, a meal or my outfit. We even managed to co-ordinate a wedding dress trip between us this visit. But communication remains minimal.

You can imagine my excitement therefore when I came across a new article in Psychology of Music journal that tested the efficacy of singing for foreign-language learning. The article, by Arla Good and colleagues, tested the theory that song is a more effective way of teaching a new language than spoken passages.

Might there be hope for my terrible Spanish, if only I sing along?


Singing is used the world over as a means to facilitate learning. Surprisingly however, there is little empirical evidence that singing boosts learning of new words anymore than learning by listening to speech or speaking normally.

Earlier this year Hi Jee Kang and I published an article where we found that background music boosted learning of Mandarin Chinese as compared to exactly the same material that lacked a musical backing track. We proposed several mechanisms for this effect, including:

1) Music grabs more attention, which is then directed to the sound of the new words

2) The structure of the music facilitates processing of the structures in the new words

3) Song creates a more elaborate memory trace, made from multiple sources and stronger as a result.

Interestingly we found that the music did not help with pronunciation, only basic memory for the new words and phrases in Chinese.


The new study took place over a 2-week learning period. 38 Spanish-speaking children from a junior school (age 9-13) in Ecuador were taught a novel lyrical passage, one group (16 students) heard the lyrics as a song and one group (22 students) heard them as a poem spoken rhythmically.

None of the children had been given any formal English instruction, though there is no doubt they had been differentially exposed to English through the media.

Wooden_Table_-_SketchUpThe children were tested after the 2 week testing session and also, uniquely, 6 months later. Each child received 20 exposures to the lyrics before testing. The lyrics contained 29 words in total and the children were tested on their ability to translate  10 of the words (like ‘table’, ‘feet’, and ‘daddy’). The children were also tested on their ability to recall the whole lyrics and their pronunciation was scored.

After 6 months 13 of the children (7 from the spoken condition) were available for re-testing.


Pronunciation – overall consonants were pronounced better than vowels. There were no differences between the groups in their pronunciation of consonants but the children who had heard the lyrics on song form were better at pronouncing the vowels.

Recall -  Children in the sung condition recalled more words in sequence than the children in the poem condition. The children from the song condition also showed fewer syllable errors, suggesting that the song had facilitated the rhythmic structure in the lyrics.

Translation – Of the 10 new English words, the singing children were able to recall on average 4 whereas the children in the poem group recalled 2.6 – a significant difference.

The long-term recall test had low participant numbers but the data suggested that the children in the singing group had maintained their advantage in better recall of the lyrics. However, the group difference in translation success had disappeared.


These findings support the use of sung lyrics to teach children words in a new language, suggesting that they may be able to learn twice as many in the short-term.

In the long-term the children may lose their overt knowledge of how to translate new foreign words correctly but they seem to retain a new foreign song more than a poem, which may form the basis for quicker learning and better pronunciation down the line.

rhythmThe findings support  one of Hi Jee’s suggestions: music helps to facilitate the processing of language structure through the medium of rhythm. Sadly there was no evidence to support or rule out other reasons why music facilitated the childrens’ learning, such as grabbing attention (through enjoyment) and building a stronger memory trace. Testing these theories, and differentiating them, will have to be the remit of future studies.

Right – I am going to practice what they preach and listed to a few Spanish tracks to see if it improves my communication with my future in-laws. There is still time before the wedding!

Paper: Good, A.J., Russo, F.A., & Sullivan, J. (2014) The efficacy of singing in foreign language learning. Psychology of Music, DOI: 10.1177/0305735614528833


Music and Neurosciences V – Blog 2 (Musical expertise and more?)

Hello Dear Reader

BreadButterKnifeDay 2 of Music and Neurosciences began well, as only a breakfast in France can….freshly baked bread and President Butter!! Oh if only this stuff was part of a healthy diet. No harm in a treat when you are in one of the homes of good food though ;-) After enjoying my breakfast I wobbled to the conference in time for the official welcome from the representatives of Dijon and the local university.

The first symposium of the day was arranged by Sylvain Moreno, a researcher whose who features quite a lot in my new book.  Sylvain has a big interest in the transfer effects of musical expertise. He started a few years ago, working on the theory that there was likely to be transfer between music and language skills. It appears now that the interest is turning to attentional control…

But more on Sylvain’s work in a minute…

The symposim was entitled ‘Music expertise and more? ‘

First we had a presentation by Vesa Putkinen, who made use of the visually stimulating Prezi format for his presentation. This software makes a nice change from PowerPoint but the hardware did appear to struggle a little with the transitions. Nevertheless, the presentation contained some fantastic longitudinal studies of musical training.

Longitudinal studies are an important step forward in the search for music transfer effects. They are expensive and suffer from high dropout rates but they help isolate the effects of music training that (ideally) are not present before the training starts.

Me in EEG!
Me in EEG!

In one of Vesa’s projects (MusicPupils) he reported 1-6 recordings for children from the age of 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17yrs. That is an impressive data set of ten years testing! His measure is EEG and he reported increases in MMN (mismatch negativity) amplitude in children who took music lessons compared to a control group. The increased neural response applied to tests of melody, rhythm, mistuning and timbre.


One of his interesting findings related to an EEG component indicative of attention (P3a). Vesa reported a difference in this component in musical individuals compared to controls at age 13-15, but then not between 15-17 years of age. The possibility is that musical children might see early advantages in attentional processing that equalise to control children later in life.

lisa_singing_by_steven4554-d3fn7hbThe next talk came from Dana Strait who gave a succinct presentation on the work she has completed with Nina Kraus regarding the cABR or complex auditory brain stem response. Complex refers to complex sounds like speech and music as opposed to simple sine tones. Her research has looked at over 300 individuals from three different cross section populations, pre-schoolers, older children and adolescents.

The older children and adolescents but not the pre-schoolers reliably show more faithful reproduction of harmonics in noise.

Dana discussed a theory as to how musical training may sharpen basic neural responses. This theory centres on cellular changes in a brain structure called the inferior colliculus. This crucial pathway in the auditory system may play a crucial role in promoting the acquisition of related learned abilities such as language.

Painting_kidThe third talk came from the chair, Sylvain Moreno. He talked about intervention programs, where music lessons are introduced, compared usually to visual art lessons.

In previous studies, after one month of lessons, musical interventions have been associated with better verbal IQ.

Newer studies in older adults suggest that inhibitory control may also be enhanced following musical training.

Following his data with children and adults, Sylvain has adopted a 3D model of music transfer effects characterised by the levels and nature of the transfer. This framework offers a model for future testing in this area.

The final talk was given by Glenn Schellenberg. Glenn summarised his thoughts on the transfer evidence to date, adding a welcome note of caution that musical training is likely to be a cause as well as a consequence of enhanced cognitive abilities and that differentiating these factors is very difficult – though longitudinal intervention studies are perhaps the best way to tackle this issue.

ukeleleGlenn spoke about his work linking personality to music transfer effects; perhaps different personality dimensions in children and adults. This will be a factor that of importance for future studies to consider. Glenn also gave described some new data linking a ukulele intervention in schools to an increase in social skills, as assessed by questionnaires.

The questions from the crowd at the end of this session were interesting but I thought the best came from Andrea Halpern who brought up the issue of having proper control groups for transfer studies. It is of course not obvious what is the correct control group for any one study and this would probably depend on the hypothesis in question.But this is a serious issue that needs to be considered in any intervention stufy.

A good morning’s brain activity! I headed for a nice cup of tea (yes, you can take the girl out of Britain…) and a chat with colleagues.